Under Construction, by the art collectives Pusat Sekitar Seni and Population Project, before it was removed from the Kuala Lumpur Biennale. Photo: Pusat Sekitar Seni.

Artists Withdraw from Inaugural Kuala Lumpur Biennale

Two art collectives whose work was to be featured in the first edition of the Kuala Lumpur Biennale have withdrawn from the exhibition after learning that the authorities had confiscated their piece on November 22, one day before the biennial was set to open at the National Visual Arts Gallery in Malaysia.

It was reported in several media outlets, including the Malaysian Insight and ArtAsiaPacific, that authorities arrived at the gallery with members of the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Tourism and Culture and seized the work. Visitors had complained about its inclusion in the exhibition, since it allegedly contains “elements of communism.”

The incident sparked the seven artists who created the piece—the art collective Pusat Sekitar Seni, which includes the Malaysian artists Aisyah Baharuddin, Ahmad Azrel Kilheeny, Mohamad Idham Ismail, Nurul Adeline Zainuddin, and Iltizam Iman Abd Jalil, in collaboration with the group Population Project, consisting of Isrol Triono and Selo Srie Mulyadi—to withdraw from the biennial.

However, the police now deny that the act of censorship took place and claim that the organizers of the exhibition removed the work. Titled Under Construction, the installation included a number of reading materials, drawings, and posters intended to raise awareness of environmental issues impacting Southeast Asia and propose solutions.

This is not the first time the police have interfered with a contemporary art event staged in the country. In January, officers removed a Suddin Lappo painting from the National Visual Arts Gallery, since it was believed to be political commentary, but it was returned the next day. The next month, prints by the artist collective Pangrok Sulap were removed from the exhibition “Escape from the Sea” at the Japan Foundation after an anonymous complaint.

In the current case, it is uncertain who was responsible for partially pulling the piece. City police chief Comm Datuk Mazlan Lazim told the Star Online that “there was no seizure. We merely advised the curator that some of the artworks are not very proper . . . It was the curator who then took down the artwork and gave them back to the artists.”

Yet Aisyah Baharuddin said the artists were informed that the police ordered the piece to be taken away by the curator. She told Malay Mail Online, “This violates our rights as artists and we have decided to pull out from the KL Biennale 2017.”